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Rahm Emanuel: Will Blagojevich retrial mar his image?

When the Blagojevich retrial begins a month before Chicago's mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel's name is expected to appear prominently in testimony. That's posing a problem for his image-makers.

By Staff writer / October 4, 2010

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel greets commuters at a downtown train station as he campaigns for Chicago mayor on Oct. 4, in Chicago.

Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times/AP

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Chicago

Rahm Emanuel stood on commuter train platforms here during the early morning rush hour Monday to shake hands, pose for pictures and talk with city residents, a preamble to his run to become Chicago’s mayor.

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The appearances were billed by his campaign as the start of a listening tour of the city, part of an effort to portray the former White House chief of staff as a candidate, and future mayor, who is responsive to voters and focused on the issues.

But come January, one month before the Feb. 22 election, a very different and less flattering image of Mr. Emanuel – that of a tough dealmaker in the bare-knuckle backrooms of Illinois politics – is expected to take center stage in testimony before a federal jury in Chicago, as the retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich gets under way.

It is an image that his campaign is already trying to downplay, a challenge in the months ahead. Emanuel’s name is expected to make many appearances during the retrial of Mr. Blagojevich, whose first trial on extortion, racketeering, and conspiracy charges ended in August and resulted in a hung jury on all but a single charge.

Blagojevich was accused of scheming to sell the US Senate seat formerly held by President Obama. According to testimony in the first trial, Emanuel aggressively courted Blagojevich in an effort to get him to choose from a pre-approved list of candidates chosen by Mr. Obama.

According to a report Sunday in the Chicago Tribune, an internal White House report states that a day before Blagojevich’s arrest in December 2008, Emanuel offered to smooth relations between the governor and a longtime nemesis, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, in an effort to get Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general and Madigan’s daughter, named to the seat.

Although Emanuel is not being accused of behaving illegally, the report contradicts statements from his representatives that he did not engage in dealmaking with Blagojevich or members of his staff.

Steve Rhodes, editor of The Beachwood Reporter, an online media site that analyzes Chicago and Illinois politics, says that before Emanuel showed serious interest in the mayoral seat, the core theme of the race appeared to be how to confront the city’s $654 million budget gap. But having Emanuel linked to Blagojevich just weeks before the election means that likely will not be the case.

“Under more normal conditions, and without Rahm in the race, ethics and reform and corruption would not have been a central issue in the campaign,” Mr. Rhodes says.

There are already signs the coming trial will be used by his opponents to raise suspicions about his candidacy.

Gery Chico, a former chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, released a statement this weekend that called for Emanuel to “clear the air now and disclose all details of his role in negotiations over the US Senate seat,” adding that Chicagoans “deserve to know the truth upfront.”

David Morrison, assistant director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago nonprofit group that works to promote government transparency, suggests corruption may be a potent issue in this campaign due to the “steady river” of corruption scandals that have resulted from the Daley administration over the past few years.

“The public is now very much aware of the problem,” Mr. Morrison says, who adds that there will be increased scrutiny of how campaigns are organized and funded to ensure against tampering.

“How [candidates] actually campaign, how they draw support, how they circulate petitions – all of that will be necessary dialogue in 2011,” he says.

Making things worse for Emanuel is the possibility he may be forced to testify in the trial, which some suggest will involve questioning that will make him vulnerable.

“The timing of the Blagojevich trial helps Rahm” in making him the central story in the campaign, Morrison says, “but it also hurts him because of the association with Blagojevich and the possible revelation of wrongdoing.”

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